It’s funny that when we watch movies like Ocean’s 11 and The Italian Job, we root for the thieves to get away with millions of dollars. People love a good heist flick, but as technology improves, the films become less realistic: Stealing valuables from high security vaults has become more and more difficult. That doesn’t mean ambitious thieves don’t try, however. These 10 amazing heists defy all odds, making for some of the most fascinating stories of cops and robbers ever told.
On St. Patrick’s Day 1990 in Boston, two thieves dressed as Police officers entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and stole 13 works of art. The pieces included a Rembrandt, Manet, and a few Degas. All told, the estimated value of the pieces was around $500 million.
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Investigators were unable to nab the thieves. The paintings were never found, but empty frames remain in the museum to this day as an homage to the missing masterpieces. The heist remains one of the biggest mysteries in American crime.
Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Often called the “Heist of the Century,” this 2003 robbery saw vast quantities of gold and diamonds, valued at over $100 million, stolen from the Antwerp Diamond Center. Leonardo Notarbartolo, the mastermind, lived next door to the diamond center for three years in preparation.
Notarbartolo had posed as a diamond merchant for years to gain credibility, but was the only member of the crew to be apprehended come heist time. Years later, he told Wired Magazine the entire heist was an insurance fraud scheme he was hired to carry out. The value of the stolen goods was just $20 million.
In 2000, London debuted its newest engineering wonder, the Millennium Dome. The grand opening featured a world class diamond collection whose crown jewel was the “Millennium Star,” a 230 carat diamond worth $250 million. Five robbers tried a smash and grab but things did not go according to plan.
The plan was to storm the exhibit guns blazing and escape on a speed boat positioned on the River Thames. However, London Metropolitan Police had already been surveilling them as a result of a string of armored car robberies, and the thieves were nabbed at the entrance.
In the wake of Saddam-era Iraq, private security contractors, former Iraqi military, and the US Army all battled for political control of the region. Amidst the chaos, $6 billion in aid money magically disappeared. The lack of accountability that followed is disturbing.
Stuart Bowen, who was tasked with overseeing the reconstruction of Iraq, admitted that he had no idea where the funds went. He called it the “largest theft of funds in national history.” The sheer amount of money — and the lack of investigation that followed — is quite suspicious.
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In 2003, a middle-aged pizza delivery man walked into a bank and handed the teller a note requesting all the money in the vault before revealing a bomb strapped to his neck. Upon leaving, he didn’t make it very far before state troopers caught up to him. But he had a plan.
The man pleaded with police, explaining that he had been forced into this robbery. Police verified his story when the neck bomb inexplicably exploded right there, leaving a trail of dead bodies. Kenneth Barnes was eventually arrested as the mastermind.
In 1963, thieves made off with £2.3 million after robbing a post office train in England. The 15-man crew pulled off the heist without using a single gun. How they were caught is more comical than you would ever imagine.
The money was theirs if the crew just disappeared. However, they decided to play a game of Monopoly in a nearby barn using the stolen money for the game. This left fingerprints everywhere, which were used to later identify and arrest them.
In a shocking display straight out of a Hollywood movie, a group of Swedish thieves used a stolen helicopter to land on top of a cash depot building in Stockholm. The finer details of their plan were brutal.
The thieves landed on the roof of the cash depot and used sledge hammers to break into sky lights. They even put spikes in the surrounding roads to blow out police vehicle’s tires. In the end, only some of the culprits were caught, and they only received 7 years in prison.
In 2010 in Paris, a team of thieves used unknown and sophisticated tools to dig a tunnel underneath a bank. Making off with over 100 safety deposit boxes and cash, the value of the haul remains unknown.
This was not the first time french robbers had tunneled into a bank. Albert Spaggiari was a renowned robber who escaped custody and lived life on the run after pulling off one of the biggest heists in French history by tunneling through the sewer system in the 1970s.
This next heist is stranger than fiction: Thomas Blood, a well known Irish assassin, decided to give robbery a try. He set his sights on an impossible goal of stealing the crown jewels of England. What happened next was bizarre.
Blood’s plan was an elaborate scheme involving disguises and trickery. He got right outside the Tower of London but was caught by guards. King Charles II was so amused by the whole affair that he pardoned Blood.
Historic Royal Places
Perhaps the most popular heist in American history is the mystery surrounding the unknown man, dubbed D.B. Cooper, who managed to hijack a Boeing 727 and extort $200,000 in cash from police as a ransom. What happened next remains a mystery.
Authorities assume that he parachuted from the plane somewhere between Portland and Seattle, but no one ever saw him again. In the ’70s, an 8-year-old kid found what was believed to be a small portion of the money on a beach in Oregon.
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A police station across the street didn’t stop thieves from targeting this bank. The three perpetrators had their own property nearby—a bookstore—and, in 2017, they used that to their advantage to pull of the unbelievable…
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The men tunneled from their bookstore to the vault of the bank next door, using boxes to cover up their work. In the end, the trio swiped 52 million Kenyan shillings, or about $500,000. The men were, however, eventually charged for their crime.
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In 1980s, Sikh separatists opposed to the Indian government would often lead bank heists to fund their operations. One fighter for their cause, separatist Labh Singh, masterminded the largest heist in India’s history.
In 1987, with about a dozen other men dressed as police officers, Singh marched on the Ludhiana branch of the national bank, AK-47s in tow. Thankfully, no one was injured, and the separatists made off with about 58 million rupees ($4.5 million).
Throughout the Cold War, infamous Cuban ruler Fidel Castro hated America for a number of reasons, including for its exploitation of Puerto Rico. So he hired a Wells Fargo armored truck driver named Victor Gerena to perform a little thievery.
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In 1983, Gerena, who was part of the Puerto Rican nationalist group Los Macheteros, stole $7 million from one of the trucks he drove. Before Wells Fargo knew what had happened, he fled to Cuba, never to be seen again.
Whenever he saw armored cars, Allen Pace III of Los Angeles, California, saw dollar signs. Inclined to launch a heist, the Dunbar security guard knew better than to target the cars. Instead, he set his sights on the depot…
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Pace and a team of five men subdued the depot’s employees, slid into the vaults, and loaded $20 million into a rented U-Haul, destroying security cameras along the way. Authorities eventually caught the team, but $15 million still remains at large.
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Three months before heist day, a group of Brazilian thieves made a little investment. They rented a property just a few blocks from their target and set up a fake landscaping business. Then, their plan was ready…
Disguised as landscapers, the thieves tunneled—complete with wood framework and lighting—from the neighboring property to underneath the bank. Without setting off an alarm, they lifted $95 million, of which authorities only ever recovered $9 million.
In 1992, 10 men had a contact on the inside of a French bank holding millions in assets. After hearing her talk about the money inside, they decided it was time to try and make out like bandits…
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The men first kidnapped a bank guard’s family. In case this didn’t do the trick, they also tied explosives to his body. Naturally, he let them into the bank, and they swiped about $21 million. Their inside lady eventually snitched on them, though less than a tenth of the money has been recovered.
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In 1976, Lebanon was in the middle of a vicious civil war, which made banks sitting ducks for people who wanted to, you know, win the war. So members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization hatched a scheme…
The PLO group blew a hole in the side of the bank, right beside the vault. They cracked open the vaults and stole between $20 and $50 million in currency, jewels, bonds, and anything else of value. Those responsible were never caught.
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On December 20, 2004, a group of unidentified men hatched a plan to steal some cash from Ireland’s oldest bank chain, launching the United Kingdom into a finger-pointing frenzy.
Late at night, the armed men burst into the home of bank executives and held their families at gunpoint. Their instructions were simple: open up the vaults after-hours and let them in. The executives complied, and the robbers took home about $37 million.
Under the cover of darkness in November 1983, a guard at the Brink’s-MAT warehouse at Heathrow Airport let six thieves into the highly secured area. Upon entering the target area, however, the thieves changed their plans…
The thieves planned on taking £3 million, but found an additional three tons of gold in the vaults. So, they took everything, leaving with £26 million ($41 million). Most involved were caught by police and convicted—but none of the money was recovered.
Amil Dinsio (pictured) wasn’t an amateur: he made a living off robbing banks. So, in 1972, he and a team—which included an alarm expert named Phil Christopher—set their sights on a southern California bank.
After entering the bank, Christopher disabled the alarm systems and the crew blasted a hole in the roof with a stick of dynamite. Once in the vault, they took $36 million—about $176 million by today’s standards, after inflation.
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Valerio Viccei saw himself as a bit of a gangster—he had 50 armed robberies under his belt. So he and a partner hatched a plan to swipe big bucks from an English vault. All they needed were award-winning acting skills…
Viccei and his friend posed as potential clients for this vault and asked the manager for a look at some safety deposit boxes. Once they had access, they pulled out guns and, with additional accomplices they let in from outside, they swiped about $98 million.
After suffering a career-ending knife injury while protecting his friends, MMA middleweight Lee Murray assembled a team to conduct the largest bank heist in British history. Their plan was surprisingly simple…
Posing as police officers, Murray and his crew kidnapped the bank manager and his family, holding them at gunpoint while the staff handed over the equivalent of about $100 million. Three months later, the crew was arrested.
In 2007, employees of the large Iraqi investment bank showed up to work, only to find something curious: tons and tons of American money had been filched from vaults. What happened?
After the money was discovered to be missing, the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry set up investigations that proved fruitless. The best theories suggest night guards swiped the $282 million, though the money was never recovered.
On March 18, 2003, one day before America invaded Iraq, dictator Saddam Hussein knew his country’s money wouldn’t make it through the war. So he sent his son, Qusay Hussein, to the bank with a signed note. He had one simple job…
Iraq State Television / Wikimedia
At the behest of his father, the younger Hussein supervised workers filling three massive trucks with metal box after metal box, each bursting with money. After that, he led the trucks with nearly $1 billion away from the scene. One third of it was never seen again.
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